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Censored Voices – BFI London Film Festival Review

Censored Voices – BFI London Film Festival Review

What a difference a week, or in this case six days makes. In the build-up to June 5th 1967, Israel faced an extremely uncertain future, surrounded by belligerent states all too happy to remove it from the map. By 10th June, the power balance in the Middle East had shifted decisively, Israel comfortably beating back opponents and massively expanding territorially. It was a moment of national euphoria in Israel, and turmoil for all those forced to flee. Censored Voices provides an interesting, though not altogether surprising account of the conflict using the testimony of Israeli soldiers, recorded at the time and mostly censored until now.

In the immediate weeks after the war, a group of kibbutzniks led by author Amos Oz decided to document these nation defining events. Israeli soldiers returning home from battle were persuaded to set down on tape their own feelings about the situation. The recordings were not meant to provide a blow-by-blow historical account, or look at the situation from anything other than a personal perspective. Thus they consist entirely of ruminations on individual actions, and confused feelings about where the war led them. The Israeli State, unwilling to dampen the enthusiastic public mood, blocked the release of nearly three quarters of the recordings.

Revealing the recordings for the first time, Mor Loushy’s film tries not to get carried away with embellishments that would detract from this fascinating material. Set to archive footage from the period, Censored Voices finally uncensors the soldiers, allowing their conflicted feelings to air. As you would expect, the jubilant mood witnessed in clips of celebrating crowds is not reflected by the combatants; at least not without ambiguity. Physical violence and the death of friends is testing, though many of the soldiers speak of the pride they felt at defending their country, and the joy that came with a victory anything but certain before hostilities broke out.censored-voices-still-01The picture grows murkier once Israel won the day. Having advanced into enemy territory, they found themselves part of a conquering army. Large scale civilian dispersion then occurred as families fled the Israelis, or were forcibly moved on from land in the hands of the victors. Some feel no remorse, others are broken by it. Most are stuck in-between, deeply disturbed by the actions they were forced to commit, but fully aware that they would have faced terrible treatment had the war gone badly.

Along the way, a number of lucid anecdotes emerge. The defeated and incredibly poorly-equipped enemy stagger up to the Israelis with water bottles full of urine, the only liquid they still have available. One soldier, having hardened his heart to the civilian population, finds the sight of an evicted old man crying in front of his appropriated house too much to bear. It’s no surprise that for these soldiers, entry into Jerusalem does not lead to the same outpouring of unadulterated joy seen elsewhere.

Lack of surprise seems to be the order of the day in general. While first-hand insight is interesting, it’s hardly a revelation to discover war is unpleasant. It would be shocking if they all turned out to be hard line zealots, but that was never going to be the case. Equally, it was always going to be tough to operate in newly acquired territory. Back when Israel was celebrating a great triumph, the decision by the Government to block release makes sense. Many may not condone it, but authorities the world over, the UK included, censor information during wartime when national morale is everything. Approaching half a century later, the fact that Israeli citizens hold conflicting views on expansion and consolidation, and the treatment of internal minorities is a well-known if unresolved problem.

It takes the edge off a documentary that otherwise has a lot to offer. Loushy makes presentational mistakes – the decision to bring the elderly soldiers back to listen to the tapes is a redundant one as they are not given much space to comment on their younger selves – but for the most part he allows these once stifled voices to speak for themselves. What they have to say breaks no new ground, but it does reaffirm that in war, even when unavoidable, it’s not just the defeated that lose.


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